We are now well into the month of Elul. At my shul, the white ark coverings are in place and the shofar is sounded every weekday morning. We should be preparing mentally for the High Holy Days. Part of that preparation includes the recitation of selichot, prayers for forgiveness, starting at a special service the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, with the caveat that there must still be at least 4 days until Rosh Hashanah. Since the holiday starts Sunday evening, October 2, we hold the selichot service this coming Saturday night, September 24.
This week’s Torah portion begins on an upbeat, with the offering of the first fruits, a ritual involving lots of pageantry. As the offering is presented to the priest, the individual recites a passage recalling the descent into Egypt, slavery, the Exodus, and arriving at the Promised Land (“A wandering Aramean…,” now in the Haggadah). According to various commentators, this ritual teaches history, gratitude (to the Lord for the fruits), patience (you can’t just devour the first luscious fig on the tree), and humility (both the humble beginnings of the Israelites and the fact that everyone brings this offering). This is followed in the text by instructions for a declaration concerning proper handling and donation of the third year tithe.
When they cross the Jordan, the people are to write down the whole Torah on an array of plaster-coated rocks, like Biblical signs or billboards. Ancient Near Eastern rulers used this method to boast of their achievements, which I’m guessing weren’t nearly as long as the Torah. Nearby will be an altar of unhewn stones for offerings, and the people will rejoice before the Lord.
Now the mood darkens. Half of the tribes are to stand on Mount Gerizim and half on Mount Ebal. The Levites, in the middle, will face Mount Gerizim as they pronounce blessings and Mount Ebal for curses. After hearing each of the 12 curses listed in 27:15-26, all the people will say “Amen.”
I wrote the following here two years ago:
“What follows in our text is a set of blessings, good things that will happen if the Israelites behave themselves and obey the law: fertility, riches, respect, and other obvious goodies. Then comes the darkest part of our reading, 54 verses of really graphic curses, starting with ‘But if you do not obey…’ (28:15). This is known as the Tochachah (warning, admonition) and is read quickly and quietly by the Torah reader. We read the “minor” Tochachah in Leviticus 26:3-46. Why two sets of warnings? The populations addressed are clearly different, naïve slaves versus adults ready to conquer a land. What are some significant differences between the two sets? My summary:
|Singular,* to each individual Israelite||Plural,* to the nation as a whole, regarding broad, national sinning||Or HaChaim|
|Said by Moses in the name of God||Said by God||Rav Moshe Bergman|
|No consolation afterward – individual will be punished||Consolation – still a chance for national redemption||The nation can eventually recover, not necessarily the individual sinner. (Ozer Alport)|
|God is clearly the one punishing, like a parent.||Theme of abandonment by God (parent), punishments thought by Israel to be by chance||Rav Moshe Bergman|
|Curses are uniformly horrible.||Successive sets of curses increasing in severity if disobedience continues||IGP. In Lev., like a parent trying to train a child to behave, resorting to harsher punishments as deemed necessary. In Deut., everything is laid on the line at once, like communicating with a more responsible teen or adult.|
*Singular vs. plural “you” is evident in the Hebrew.
“There’s no explicit consolation after the curses in Ki Tavo, but there is a little reassurance by Moses, who recognizes, albeit a little grudgingly, that they are no longer helpless children but have matured (more or less) to the point of joining with the Lord in the covenant, thus succeeding as a nation.”
Now that the reader has been thoroughly shell-shocked by the Tochachah, it is a relief to turn to the haftarah, Isaiah 60:1-22, the sixth haftarah of consolation. Imagery is now of light and radiance and a glorious future (60:19). “Never again shall your sun set, nor shall your moon be withdrawn; for the Lord shall be unto you as an eternal light, and ended shall be the days of your mourning.” A fitting note on which to end as we approach the New Year.
Country Church Stewardship
The pastor of a tiny country church had been having trouble with stewardship and tithes and offerings. One Sunday he announced, “Now, before we receive the offering, I would like to request that the person who stole the eggs from Widow Jones’s chicken coop please refrain from giving any money to the Lord. God doesn’t want money from a thieving sinner.”
The offering plate was passed, and for the first time in months everybody gave.
33 Signs That Were Vandalised With The Most Hilarious Responses Ever (selected)
24. I love being retired.
A selection of Yiddish curses
- May you never be alone in bed: you should always have bedbugs, lice, fleas, etc.
- May you grow so wealthy you can afford only the finest specialists.
- You should find a gold piece on the sidewalk and be so arthritic you can’t pick it up.
- Your nose should grow so much hair it strains your soup.
- May your blood turn to alcohol so all the fleas on your body get drunk and dance the mazurka in your belly button!
- May the sun and the spring breeze warm you and caress you like an apple as you hang from a tree.
- Your head should be full of lice but your arms should be too short for you to scratch.
Product Warnings (selections):
- “Do not use if you cannot see clearly to read the information in the information booklet.” —In the information booklet.
- “For external use only!” —On a curling iron.
- “Do not place this product into any electronic equipment.” —On the case of a chocolate CD in a gift basket.
- “Shin pads cannot protect any part of the body they do not cover.” —On a pair of shin guards made for bicyclists.
- “This product not intended for use as a dental drill.” —On an electric rotary tool.
- “Do not drive with sunshield in place.” —On a cardboard sunshield that keeps the sun off the dashboard.
- “This product is not to be used in bathrooms.” —On a Holmes bathroom heater.
- “Eating rocks may lead to broken teeth.” —On a novelty rock garden set called “Popcorn Rock.”
- “Caution: Shoots rubber bands.” —On a product called “Rubber Band Shooter.”
- “Please keep out of children.” —On a butcher knife.
- “Do not recharge, put in backwards, or use.” —On a battery.
- “Do not look into laser with remaining eye.” —On a laser pointer.
- “Warning: has been found to cause cancer in laboratory mice.” —On a box of rat poison.
- “Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage.” —On a portable stroller.
Modern Day Blessings (IGP, from Ki Tavo TPH’s in 2005, 2006, 2007)
May you enjoy your work and your coworkers.
May you retire when you choose to.
May each person in the express line actually have fewer than 15 items.
May both your life and your house be uncluttered.
May your child apply early decision to the right college and get in before January.
May you have as much vacation as you need.
May your children listen, or at least pretend to.
May you never get “failure warnings” from your child’s school.
May the principal not have your phone number on speed-dial.
May your taste and knowledge not be so exquisite that you are pained by everyone and everything.
May you hit all the green traffic lights.
May you never misplace your keys, especially when you’re rushing out the door already late for work.
May you always be caught up.
May you be appreciated.
May you be understood.
Modern Curses [by IGP, as above]]
May you never be listened to.
May not just your computer crash, but the server with all your back-ups.
May your desk never be clear.
May you never be caught up.
May your job be outsourced to India.
May you be outsourced to India.
May you be responsible for all the details.
May your vision not be as sharp as the image on your new HDTV set.
May your new electronic gadget become obsolete in the time it takes you to learn how to use it.
May your children love school so much they keep going and going and going and…
May you develop an allergy to chocolate.
In honor of Star Trek’s recent 50th anniversary
Q: How many members of the U.S.S. Enterprise does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Seven. Scotty has to report to Captain Kirk that the light bulb in the Engineering Section is getting dim, at which point Kirk will send Bones to pronounce the bulb dead (although he’ll immediately claim that he’s a doctor, not an electrician). Scotty, after checking around, realizes that they have no more new light bulbs, and complains that he “canna” see in the dark. Kirk will make an emergency stop at the next uncharted planet, Alpha Regula IV, to procure a light bulb from the natives, who, are friendly, but seem to be hiding something. Kirk, Spock, Bones, Yeoman Rand and two red shirt security officers beam down to the planet, where the two security officers are promptly killed by the natives, and the rest of the landing party is captured. As something begins to develop between the Captain and Yeoman Rand, Scotty, back in orbit, is attacked by a Klingon destroyer and must warp out of orbit. Although badly outgunned, he cripples the Klingon and races back to the planet in order to rescue Kirk who has just saved the natives from an awful fate and, as a reward, been given all light bulbs they can carry. The new bulb is then inserted and the Enterprise continues on its five year mission.